Sunday, 16 August 2015

Sabrina Dreaming, Coasting, Diving

A recent invitation to present some installation works at the 2015 Lydney Harbour Festival provided an opportune point at which to draw to a close the first phase of the Sabrina Dreaming creative residency project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

During this period of over a year, I have had the wonderful opportunity to be in close contact with the coastal territories of the Severn Estuary, and with researchers at CCRI (the Countryside and Communities Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire). Knitting together these two strands of involvement has proved a challenge, and remains an ongoing one. With the completion of this phase of Sabrina Dreaming, there begins for me a new period of creative exploration, building on the findings to-date, and guided by the exciting potentials revealed thus far.

I can summarise the activities of the residency period as follows:
1. Fieldwork: Deep Mapping and geopoetic involvement with aspects of the physical and cultural geography of this coastal, intertidal zone. Interactions with local people, places and environmental processes.
2. Dialogues with a selection of researchers at my host academic unit (CCRI), including outreach to other university departments and external bodies (national and international)
3. Collaborative involvements with other creatives, in the production of works, ranging from film/sound pieces, printed materials and immersive installations.

Throughout this period of relational, reflexive and reflective residency, I have been evolving my ideas about the particular hybrid approach that underlies my creative practice. For me, the most apt description for this mode of working is ‘geopoetic’. The fusion-term geopoetics is one that I’ve increasingly embraced within my expanded creative journeys on the borderlands of art and ecological/landscape studies. My borrowing of the term has grown out of long-term involvements with ‘deep mapping’ and ‘slow residency’ art processes. For me, geopoetics elegantly aligns the linear, dendritic forms of information (scientific, field-data etc) with those governed more by the rhizomic imagination (speculation, visualisation, dreaming etc).
The Canadian poet Don McKay has described ‘geopoetry' as “a mental space where conjecture and imaginative play are needful and legitimate”.

In April of this year, I was invited to present a public lecture where I outlined the key elements of such an approach. The lecture was titled Sabrina Dreaming: Hydro-Geo-Poetic Investigations, but also had an alternative sub-title: Catchments & Attachments. It was part of the ‘Sustainable Landscapes’ series hosted by the SW Landscape Architects and the University of Gloucestershire.

In this talk I revisited some of the context of my residency project:

Many rivers have sacred personifications - often in the form of female deities. For the River Severn, this is 'Sabrina' or 'Hafren' in Welsh. My artist-residency project seeks to expand and deepen the ways in which this coastal landscape is encountered and understood. New light is shone on conversations and involvements, via film/sound/sculpture-based artworks that extract some of the hidden and intangible essences of this coast. An overarching context is the pressing need for anticipatory adaptation to climate-instability, not just on this coast, but probably most of the coastlines throughout the world. The Severn Estuary coast is a special case, having the second largest tidal-range in the world. This throws up particular challenges and opportunities, including opportunities for CCRI to expand some of its existing scope of work, which includes research streams relating to ecosystem services, land-use, water management, food security and rural/social issues. 

The residency is an attempt to provide a platform for more diverse involvements, and to explore new trans-disciplinary responses to this place, activating gaps and building bridges. As an example of the serendipitous approaches I favour, I placed of a set of Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards in the CCRI workplace, with encouragement for these to be used to disrupt and prompt lateral modes of thinking. My facilitation of a CCRI 'away-day’ excursion to the Severn coast, included a visit to a farmer whose land frequently floods; the National Trust site at Westbury Court to discuss land management issues; and to a heritage fishing centre at Newnham-on-Severn. There we had a picnic which included local produce (including smoked eel) from Severn&Wye Smokery and local Severn Cider. In the course of the year I gave seminar presentations of progress; for one of these I invited a guest speaker, with the aim of linking the Severn Estuary setting with a landscape in West Africa with very different water-related issues.

As they apply to geopoetic creative practice, some findings, or realisations, emerging from the residency include:
  • This work takes time
  • It is vital to identify/find one or more ‘gateway’ local contacts
  • The approach has to be emergent, responsive, flexible, fluid
  • It is also relational, reflective, reflexive 
  • Dialogues with ‘officialdom’ and agencies provide a necessary rounded perspective
  • Dialogues with local people enable the essential ‘weft’ of local knowledge to create a rich weave
  • The aim is provocation, as well as celebration
  • It is a form of participatory action-research
  • A geopoetic involvement benefits greatly from collaboration

One of the (still very active) Sabrina Dreaming strands is a collaborative walking-based enquiry with Dr Iain Biggs (ex-director of the Place Research Centre, Bristol). Iain and I share an interest in land-based creative investigations, using approaches which can be described as ‘deep mapping’.
“Deep mapping aims to challenge the official management of memory that fixes the value and uses of places.” Dr Iain Biggs
Our collaborative work is called Transgression (Rising Waters). Weaving disparate time-frames (geo, ice-age, tide etc), we took as our starting point the definition of ‘transgression’ as a geological term describing an advance of the sea over land areas.
“a relative rise in sea level resulting in deposition of marine strata over terrestrial strata. The sequence of sedimentary strata formed by transgressions and regressions provides information about the changes in sea level during a particular geologic time’’
Transgression is also about the tensions between a sense of freedom, and the constraints, strictures and structures of social meshes. The coastal zone can be viewed as a place where all these dynamics play out.

For the wider Sabrina Dreaming project, three ‘historic’ photographs provided me a starting point for a weaving of ideas - as well as juxtaposing other distant tidal situations with the Severn coast.
1.The first image was of Gandhi’s ‘Salt March’ arriving at the coast at Dandi in 1930, to harvest salt. The point of his 240-mile long march to the sea was political and subversive  — a challenge to Britain's Salt Acts which prohibited Indians from collecting or selling salt. This transgressive action formed a pillar of Gandhi’s satyagraha or mass civil disobedience. What this action also reveals is an age-old and powerful human relationship to the coast.
The two other images also relate - obliquely - to ‘coastal pilgrimage’:
2. Joseph Beuys at Sandycove, Dublin Bay, 1974: This holds and reveals (amongst other associations) the Beuysian idea of ‘social sculpture’; the importance of myth, soul, symbolism and ancient shamanic thought; the Joycean epiphanies by the sea (at/near this location); or even his thinking like a river, as in Finnegans Wake.
3. Bob Dylan at Aust Jetty (Severn Estuary) 1966: This signifies for me a time of rupture and disconnection between people and the estuarine environment - with all its wonders and tidal dangers. In the background of the photo is the nearly completed Severn Bridge. This piece of infrastructure brought an end to the intimate contact which was a feature of the slow and potentially hazardous ferry crossings of the estuary.

Another strand of the project was a film piece, designed to be an element of an immersive installation. I describe such installation work as 'scenographic' - having the quality of a choreographed theatrical staging. It is also geopoetic - intimately combining knowledge and imagination. As well as sculptural use of materials, such assemblages, or bricolage, may include the juxtaposition of projected film, audio recordings, still images and texts. The combined effect is to draw the audience into a physical, material and enchanting place of rhizomic complexity. The rational mind is partly bypassed and what then becomes activated is a deeper imaginative and emotional connection. The film has also been shown as a stand-alone piece, including at the CUBE Cinema in Bristol. Much of the content was gathered with the help of some local people whose daily working lives are still intimately involved with the water and the coast.

A very interesting spin-off project that grew out of my involvement with my host was the production (with the assistance of Bristol-based Rough Glory Films) of a film documentary about an innovative ecological water/flood-management project in the River Frome catchment around Stroud. This was jointly commissioned by CCRI and Stroud District Council, as an extension of my Severn-based residency project. As is stated in the film ‘water knows no boundaries’, and therefore the journey upstream and inland from the coast seems, in hindsight, to be a very natural one.

Diving one more into the waters and mud of the estuary, some of the aspirations and possibilities for the next phase of the on-going project include:
Refining and re-showing the Sabrina Dreaming installation works, which were first tested at Lydney Harbour in July, 2015
Completing a print-project, in the form of an artist book.
Further development of the Sabrina Dreaming film piece
Further develop the Transgression (Rising Waters) film and collaborative performative presentation
Production of a dialogue-based work (sound or film) with selected CCRI researchers, using some material from the provocative Dark Mountain Project as a discussion platform
Development of an in-situ coastal 'happening', with performance, film, experimental bronze-casting (and more !)
Continuation of the international reach of the project: As AiR, I was invited to the Wadden Academie Sense of Place conference at Oerol Festival on Terschelling Island in June 2014, and have been making building relationships in an attempt at forming a small coastal-tidal-twinning international network.

As a finale to this update, I include below some images from the experimental site-specific installation spaces at Lydney Harbour, and I’ll leave the final words here to poet Don McKay, writing about how a geopoetic perspective can embrace both insignificance and hope:
"On the one hand, we lose our special status as Master Species; on the other, we become members of deep time, along with trilobites and Ediacaran period organisms. We gain the gift of de-familiarization, becoming other to ourselves, one expression of the ever-evolving planet. Inhabiting deep time imaginatively, we give up mastery and gain mutuality."

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